Interview with Joanne Archibald
Joanne Archibald: I got sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison, when I was three months pregnant. Well, I got arrested when I was 3 months pregnant. My court case took a long time, so I was able to have my son outside. And he was seven months old when I went in. That’s, like, probably one of the clearest days, remembering what it was like going there. I was able to turn myself in. I didn’t get taken to prison in custody and that was really nice. That gave me time to be with my son David and his caregiver, to see where they were going to live and kind of have a picture where he was going to be. But that day, driving up to the gate in my sister’s little Volkswagen bug, with my sister, my friend Joan, who was going to take care of David, and David and I. Then leaving him there and walking through that gate.
Even though I had had a chance to talk to somebody who had gotten out of there before I went in, to kind of get an idea of the rules and what you can bring and what you couldn’t, and even knowing that, there was lots of stuff that they tossed and I couldn’t bring in. You could bring pictures, but you couldn’t bring them in frames, because you couldn’t have glass or the frame or anything. But that, seeing that car drive away and me being there, it was like all this time between when I got arrested and actually turning myself in, over a year. And even though it was real then, it wasn’t really real ‘til I walked through those doors. And I would say I barely stopped crying the whole first day. They sent me to the medical unit where I just sat and waited all day. I had to be there at 9:00 a.m. and then maybe at three or four in the afternoon another group of women came in custody, actually not just women, it was women and men because it was a co-correctional facility. They didn’t do any processing of me until there was a group for them to do, and then we went through.
They give you a physical and ask you questions, give you a pillow and a blanket and stuff and then they assign you to a cell. There’s a special area where you come before you’re really assigned to anything. It’s like an orientation area, and it was on the other…like across the compound so you’re just carrying your stuff - like everybody knows, here’s the new people and you’re kind of marching in with your pillows and going to your room. That whole day when I was there crying and waiting to be processed at the medical unit, twice during that day was pill time, I mean twice while I was there. So people were coming to the pill line and where I was, it had a big glass front, so all these people saw me sitting there crying, and it was really kind of touching how many people came over and talked to me through the glass. They would say, “It’s going to be okay.” And, you know, ask a few questions. They couldn’t really stay and talk long because you weren’t supposed to. It kind of reassured me and that helped.
The intake was probably a couple of weeks. While you’re on intake they give you a job. You go out in the morning and sweep up cigarette butts off the sidewalks, and you go to a lot of little presentations, and mostly you’re basically just sitting around, and they tell you what goes on and what the rules are and what you can do and can’t do. My roommate during that time was a woman from, you see I was in a federal facility so there were people from all over the country, my roommate in that part was from New Orleans, and she had cashed somebody’s checks. I guess it was public aid checks or social security checks, because it was federal. That made it a federal offense. And she had really, really had some mental health issues. We stayed friends during the whole time, and she actually ended up getting raped by one of the guards. She had a room by herself for a long time because she did have some mental health issues. And she had a false, like a hysterical pregnancy where she looked like she was 6 or 7 months pregnant. It went on for months, she kept saying she was pregnant, and nobody believed her. They would give her tests and the test showed that she wasn’t pregnant, but I even felt her belly, it wasn’t like if somebody is fat where it’s soft. When you are pregnant it is very hard, it was really like that, it was amazing. I guess finally it just went away.
So then after the orientation, then you get assigned a room and a regular job. My roommate then was a woman who was probably in her late fifties, a Spanish woman from Southern California whose husband beat her and forced her to cash these checks that he had stolen, because they were in a woman’s name. She was actually relieved in a lot of ways, she said, to be there and be away from him. And she was a good roommate - I mean we got along really well. Our room was small, like a small dorm room. There were bunk beds - room for bunk beds, the beds just fit going the width of the room and maybe a little bit of room left over. So that’s how wide it was, and coming the other way there was a desk. A little desk on each side, and then up near the door was kind of a divider…it didn’t really block, but it blocked a little. And on the other side of that was our toilet and there was a sink in there too. Showers you had to go down the hall for, but your toilet was in there. We, you know it is hard going to the bathroom in front of people, we sort of had a - we would give each other space to have some time in the room by ourselves. We did actually have keys to our rooms, but all the officers also had keys. There was a little glass rectangle in the door and you weren’t allowed to cover that up. We did have something that looked like a little potholder, that was that shape, and you were allowed to put it up just for a few minutes at a time while you were using the toilet. If they thought you had it on too long, then they would come in your room. So you had to be sort of judicious about how you used it.
I got assigned to work in the kitchen from 4 am to noon and my roommate worked I forget where, but we had different schedules. So it was nice, in a way, you know when I got off at noon, she would be at her job, hers was regular in the day, so I had the room to myself then. And she had it to herself in the morning. We got along really well. We talked a lot, but we gave each other a lot of space too and that was helpful. I stayed by myself a lot. I mean, I made some really good friends there, but I was lucky in that I had a lot of visits. We had visiting hours four days a week, and I had visitors every visiting day, so that kept me busy. And I had a lot of people writing me letters and a lot of people who let me call them. So that stuff kept me - and I think because my son was so little, he was 7 months old when I went in, my attention just stayed so focused on him. I had such an unusual situation with his caregiver. She moved to the town the prison was in, Pleasanton, California, so I had so much more contact than anybody else did with their kids. I think I had more visits then anybody else in the prison then, so I was really lucky. I was kind of aware of it at that time, but not really that much because I was so unhappy with the whole situation.
It wasn’t like I was really looking at, “oh, I’m so lucky.” It was almost like I couldn’t really appreciate it. I mean, every time he came I still had to say good-bye and give him to somebody else who would walk out with him, and it never got any less wrenching to do the good-byes. I would cry every time, and I can’t even count how many times I would get yelled at by officers for crying, like “What are you crying for, you get visits, a lot of people don’t.” That was true, and I was grateful for it. But it didn’t make it any less difficult when he left. I would just want to crawl in my bed and get under the covers and cry for a while. But when the visit ended you had to get strip-searched. So it wasn’t like I could just go back to my cell and be by myself and think about it. You very seldom got strip-searched right away, usually you had to wait in line. There was just one officer who was doing it, and if it was near the end of visitation, everybody is leaving at the same time so there’s a line. It was just always so awful in that line. It was kind of like, people didn’t talk, you didn’t chitchat or ask, “How was your visit?” Mostly everybody was so into that pain of seeing your people walk away again, that it was usually just like really quiet. And you didn’t even look in anybody’s eyes, you just kind of like close off. We had to stand in this line, but we were leaning against the wall, so we were looking out and everybody was in their own pain. And then going in this little closet size room with an officer and stripping totally, shaking your hair, opening your mouth, showing them the bottom of your feet, bending over, squatting and coughing. It just, it was just so degrading, and I will say that for a lot of the officers that did that it was degrading for them too, and they would…especially if they knew who you were and knew there wasn’t a lot of risk, they would kind of go through it quickly, kind of cursory, still doing every step. But then, there were some who you could almost feel like they enjoyed the degradation they were putting you through, and that made it even more difficult.
But, like I said, I was lucky because I had visits four days a week, that was the maximum visiting. Thursday and Friday we visited in the visiting room. Saturday and Sunday they had a Children’s Center open, and that was better. In the visiting room, a big high ceiling room, gray walls, gray tables, gray carpet, you were expected to just sit at the table and visit, which was not very realistic having an infant, to expect him to sit for 3 or 4 hours at a table. So, again, I used to get scolded because David would be crawling around or walking around or running around. They did have a yard off the visiting room and when it was nice out there was play equipment out there. That was better because I could actually let him move around, but sitting in the visiting room when it was cold was really difficult. We had to just keep him occupied with toys or popcorn or… you know, so he wasn’t bothering people. But, then the Children’s Center was great, it was like a nice day care place. It was run by contract workers, not regular prison staff, which made a huge difference. In the visiting room, he had to come with an adult, he had to be brought in with an adult. In the Children’s Center he could get dropped off, and then it would just be him and me visiting together, which would be nice for us. It would also be really nice for his caregiver because it would give her a little break.
She had gone from being a single person to a fulltime caregiver of an infant in a town where she didn’t know anybody except me in the prison. I think she met people through the year, but it was really nice for her to have that break. He was very attached to her, and I was really happy about the care that she gave him, but it was still awkward sometimes because he was so attached to her. I can remember one time in the visiting room, he was crawling under the table, and he bumped his knee on the base of the table. He started crying, and he looked at me, then he looked at her, then he looked at me. He like looked back and forth several times, it was like, “Who’s supposed to take care of me?”—you know? That was really hard. As much as I knew that it was important for him to be really attached to her and really care for her, it still was difficult because it made me feel like I wasn’t taking care of him, like I wasn’t his mother anymore. That was hard to deal with. At the Children’s Center we could just be together, I mean there were other children there too, but it was really special to have that time alone. And I think it made a difference in maintaining our connection. I mean, the visits did and he was always happy to see me, but I think it really made a difference having time, just him and I and not other visitors.
I worked in the kitchen, which was really the drudge job. Pretty much everybody, when you first came in, got put in the kitchen. Somehow I made the mistake…I was there almost the whole time, because I did a good job and became a cook and they didn’t want me to leave. It was really hard getting up that early, I started work at 4:00 a.m., and they, you know they’d wake you up and then give you “X” amount of time to get dressed, I forget how much it was. Then you’d wait with other kitchen workers—you couldn’t just walk across the compound by yourself, you had to be escorted at that hour in the morning. Then the kitchen - the prison was overcrowded, so… the kitchen was really designed to cook for half the number of people that were there, which meant we had to start things so early. If we were having BLT’s for lunch, we had to start at 6:00 in the morning, cooking the bacon for lunch and just cook and cook and cook and put it in these warming things. So, even though it might have been halfway decent food if you ate it right away, when it sat for four hours before lunch it didn’t end up being very good. It was always really heavy on the starch.
I was into cooking before I even went there, so it was just so offensive to my sensibility—the way they cooked. It was like always a lot of cornstarch in the sauces to thicken it up, make it go further. It really was not good food. Although I will say working there we ate better because we got to eat it when it was first made instead of food sitting for hours. BLT was a popular day because people liked BLTs, and everybody was my best friend on BLT day. After you cooked all morning, then you would serve at lunch. You were supposed to only give everybody 3 pieces and everybody wanted more. So, they’d like try to be really nice, “Oh, come on, just one more piece, just one more piece.” It was hard working there because… well, one, it was just hard; but it was co-ed, and I cooked with this guy who was constantly rubbing up against me and stuff. At the time I didn’t even know the words, “sexual harassment,” but that’s totally what it was, now that I know about sexual harassment. I just knew that he was really bothering me. A few times I complained about it, and when I complained about it, then the officer would talk to him about it and then he would be so mean. and we were supposed to be working together, and make things so difficult, that it was just almost easier to deal with him making comments and rubbing up against me rather than telling on him. And actually after seven months, I finally got out of the kitchen because I talked to somebody in my living unit. This guy that was the head of my living unit, I talked to him about it. And he got me transferred out instead of just talking to the guy.
One thing good about the kitchen—it was hard getting up that early, but then you kind of get on that schedule. Then I was finished at noon and so, I had free time in the day when most other people were busy and that was nice because you could exercise in the yard - which really meant walking in a circle around the track - just actually being outside when it was nice, most of the time. Then they stopped that, the first months I was there if your work assignment wasn’t during those times you could be out in the recreation area, then they stopped that. Even if your work assignment was over, you had to be inside. So, I was inside, but I would have the room to myself. I read a lot, and I wrote a lot of letters. One of the things I regret is that I didn’t have people save my letters or that I didn’t save them. I think that would be really interesting now, because I did write lots and lots of letters. And I had my visits—I had visits Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For some strange reason, in the kitchen, they gave me Monday and Tuesday as my days off. So, it was kind of like Wednesday was the only day I didn’t have something special to look forward to… but then it was… I did have those next 4 days of visiting to look forward to, so it made the schedule a lot better. Then when I got out of the kitchen I was on unit duty, which was a cruise job, I mean you cleaned. And it was cleaned everyday, so it was really clean and it didn’t take that much. And again, though, I got really into it so they… I spent maybe 2 and 1/2 hours a day, which was 5 times as much as most of the people on cleaning spent. So, they liked me, so they kept me on the cleaning. But, it was a great job. Then you couldn’t go out—I was theoretically supposed to be working all day, so I couldn’t go out in the yard, but I could be in my room.
Besides our rooms, the units were like in a big triangle with the rooms all around the sides. There was… these kinds of lounge areas, open areas with some chairs and couches where you could hang out. And then in the corners there were laundry and TV rooms. I went to the TV rooms a little in the beginning, and then I never really went to them because there were certain people that liked to be in charge of what was on and who sat in what seat. When I was first there I was kind of just doing it more as a social thing and I… somebody really got angry with me because I was in their seat, when I had no idea I was in their seat. You know that kind of stuff was really…I thought “I don’t really care about TV, so why am I here?” So that, and somebody almost beat me up one day because of laundry, too. Because somebody took my wet laundry out of the dryer and put theirs in, and so when I came back and saw my wet on the top I did it again and this women really threatened me. So I just avoided all conflict, “Okay, fine, put your stuff in there, I’ll do mine later.” It just didn’t seem worth fighting about.
But, I would say really I had so few negative interactions with other people there. Most of the negative stuff was with staff and administration. It was much more… because I guess you find people who are friendly and helpful. . It was much more “We’re all in this together, and we need to deal with it,” than… there really wasn’t that much that I experienced of in terms of arguments with people - other inmates. I found there were a few groups…I took a class… the people who did the Children’s Center, they did classes on parenting—- I took one on “your child’s self-esteem.” They had training things, because then inmates could work in the Children’s Center, and I took those to keep myself busy. I did counseling. Although it was kind of… I was really aware that it was more to take up my time and I used it how I could… because this guy they sent me to, he was a student, he was doing an internship. He was younger than I was and he was so inexperienced. And also being aware of, “He works for them, so how much privacy do I really have?” I would say I used it as a way to just kind of dump some stuff, but I never would have tried to do any intensive work with him because I just didn’t trust him. And I didn’t think he knew what was going on.
I was sort of aware that I was teaching him more than he was helping me, and that was okay because it still was helpful to talk sometimes. I also did… there was a psychologist who did a stress reduction group that was really, really good. He brought in biofeedback machines, he introduced us to all different kinds of stress reduction—a couple different kinds of meditation. Then he did guided imagery, and I had really intense reaction to the guided imagery. So he started working with me individually doing guided imagery, which was pretty amazing because it was something that, I think… I still feel like I’m processing some of the stuff, and it helped unlock some things, like… I had been sexually abused by my brother as a kid and never really told anybody, never really dealt with it. At the time it was happening, I started saying I hated him. And whenever his name would be mentioned, saying, “He’s not my brother, I hate him.” And, instead of my mom saying, “Okay, why are you saying that? What’s going on?” she would just tell me not to say it, “Don’t say that, he is your brother, you shouldn’t hate anybody. It’s a sin to hate.” She didn’t really want to deal with it. So, I ended up just stuffing it and really so not dealing with it that I really didn’t even remember it much after a while. And then, doing the guided imagery, one of the things, one of the sessions… he would just do general suggestions, like, a house. But, then it ended up being the house I grew up in, but I found this secret room in the basement.
And it had all these clothes from the 50’s, which is when this happened. And it was this really strange feeling of finding this room and knowing it was my room—I mean not really like the room I had—that these were my things and how come I didn’t remember them. It was really, really upsetting. It really wasn’t until after I got out of prison that I figured out what that whole thing meant, that it was about that abuse. But I think it was the beginning of bringing it back up. But most of the sessions I did with him were more pleasant, where I would just really feel like I was getting out for a while, to go on these little trips. I think he was really interested because I had such strong reactions. The first time that we did it, it was in a group and he had us go in a forest, walk down a path and see a pond, then look at your reflection in the pond. In my pond, this lizard woman popped out and I screamed and was crying. Everyone else was just sitting there, calmly, going through their guided imagery. So, that was when he started working with me alone. Most of the other ones were just he and I having sessions. They were amazing, because it’s like having an awake dream. It had the reality of a dream, even when you know the things don’t make sense, but it’s totally real because you are dreaming it. But I could be describing it to him, out loud, while it was happening. And it was still was just as real as a dream. It was pretty amazing.
A lot of the things were like that—where it wasn’t until a lot after that, thinking about them more, processing them, that I would see that this is related to this and… Like that one with the secret room being this abuse that was in my home that I kept secret for so many years.
That group was really good. And then I was in a yoga group, which was kind of hit and miss because you can’t really do… it was started by inmates, but you had to have a staff member who was willing to be in the room with you while you were doing it because they would never let inmates be together for some kind of activity without a staff person there. So, we had a staff person who was willing to do it, but if they were busy or they got called in to something else, the group would get cancelled, so it was kind of a hit and miss group.
Then I did a group with the Course in Miracles. I loved that group, too. That one, we didn’t really have a staff person, but we just sat at the dining room… At the dining room there were tables outside, too, that you could sit at sometimes, so we did it during “rec time,” when it was okay to be in those open places with other inmates, so we didn’t a staff person to be with us. This Course in Miracles, it’s religious… I don’t even know the name of the organization, but there are certain places that will send inmates free books and this was one of them… and somebody told me about it, so I wrote them and, to me, this was the first miracle—I got the book SO FAST! Between when I wrote the letter and I got the book back was a week. I thought, “There’s got to be something to this,” because how could that happen, that it could be so fast? It was sort of like a new age religion thing. I really like it, and I liked the other people that did it. And really I don’t remember how I found them… if maybe people saw you reading the book. That part, I don’t have a clear memory of how I knew they were into it, too. We would discuss it together and talk about the ideas. That group really, really helped me.
For the most part, I just lived for my visits. I had some friends that I hung out with, but I kept to myself a lot and kept attached to the outside. Part was, I didn’t have that long of a sentence and I kind of made friends with certain people that had longer sentences. And for their own self-preservation, they didn’t want to get close to somebody who has a year. So, you end up making better friends with people with similar sentences, especially if you have a short time. It wasn’t that hard and fast, like there was somebody who had a really long time in my yoga group and we got really close, but I think I was aware that it was hard for them. Because I knew how hard it was for me leaving the people outside. So, more of the people I hung out with more were more short-termers, like me.
Really, a lot of people when you met them would ask, “How long are you here for?” and I stopped saying too much about it because when I was first there—I was unbelievably lucky to get the sentence I did, for what I did. I carried drugs, but it was a kilo—and I only got a year. And this place had a lot of people who were testifying against co-defendants and were there for protective custody, and somebody told me, “You know, you shouldn’t tell people because they’re going to assume that you’re a snitch and people didn’t like that.” So, I didn’t really…I stopped then saying much about my case So, I stopped saying much… unless I got to know somebody more. A lot of times people did asked more casually, and I didn’t give them all the information. Mostly, I just lived for when I would get out and could be with my baby again, and letters, and my friend sent pictures of him all the time. Now they have more restrictions of how many pictures you can have, but they didn’t then, so I had lots of pictures and that was really nice.
Salome Chasnoff: So, what was it like when you got out?
J.A.: When I got out… I went from prison to a halfway house. For the last ten weeks, I went to a halfway house, but I got to go there by myself. I didn’t have to go in custody… and that would be going from California to Hawaii. So, I had… I got to go with Joan and David, my baby. We went in the same plane and so, I got to be with him there. It was a hard flight, he cried almost the whole time, but before the flight, there was time, I don’t think it was overnight, but I remember him taking a nap and me laying beside him at my sister’s house and just staying awake the whole time he napped, just watching him, because it was such a treat to put him down for a nap. The halfway house was awful. It was designed for people who were going to be there for a couple years, so you had a level system—I was never able to get past 2nd level, so I wasn’t able to get passes where you stayed out overnight or anything like that. Which they told me at the prison, “Oh, it’s going to be like this, you’re going to be able to have weekends off.”
It wasn’t designed for that, and they were unbelievably petty and not supportive of me spending time with him. Again, it was a place where I could have him visit there, but they didn’t want him to run around. He was over and didn’t sit still and they were always getting angry that he was running around, and saying, “If you can’t keep him under control he’s not going to be able to come visit.” I worked up to where I could get 3-hour passes to go out. By the end I actually got some 6 hour ones, but mostly it was really hard, because you had to go out and find a job and every place you went, the first thing you had to do was hand them this slip they had to sign that said you were in the halfway house and that you were here. Because they wanted to verify every place you were, and then they randomly called to check up on your slips. It made it sort of hard when their first impression at the place was handing them this slip of paper saying, “I’m in this halfway house.” It was hard to find jobs. I didn’t really have a lot of job skills. I ended up getting a job at a health food store that was minimum wage, part-time, so it wasn’t enough to live on. I did take a class at the university, because I had been in college when I was arrested, and I wanted to continue college.
They wouldn’t let you go to school fulltime, you had to work. So I took a class. But they’d allow program time for going to class, but they wouldn’t allow me any library time. I had a research paper to do, that they told me I had to use my pass time for. Well, I had 3 hour passes, and I was not going to not be with David to do research at the library. My instructor called them and said he would be willing to be at the library with me while I did my research if they would count it as program time, but they said no. He was great because I told him what the situation was and he said, “Well, I can’t give you over a C then.” I said, “Fine, I’m happy with a C. I’m not doing the paper.” It just seemed like, aren’t these the things they’re supposed to help you get it together with? And they were so obstructive on everything - things like you had to sign in when you came in. I signed in, I didn’t write p.m. after the time so, I lost my whole weekend privileges, even though the staff person was right there watching me. Instead of saying, “Don’t forget to put p.m. - we need that there.” I don’t know why in the first place. So, I had a 3-hour pass Friday, Saturday and Sunday, or I would’ve had, but I didn’t have because I didn’t put p.m. That was the mentality there, it was horrible, plus it was almost on an entrance ramp on the freeway, so there was nonstop traffic noise. It would have been better to stay at prison than go there, because I saw David less there.
When I first got out, I was lost. I really thought my life was kind of over. That this had totally ruined it. I didn’t know how to start up again. I needed… somebody found me an apartment, found me a used car. It was like, even in that short time, I got used to somebody making the decisions and taking care of things. It was partly getting used to it and partly that I just was so depressed. I didn’t know how anything was going to be right again. It took such a long time to emotionally feel okay. Then I went on public aid, which didn’t help at all, because then I was an ex-con and a welfare mother. That was something that still made me feel bad about myself. It was kind of like, I couldn’t see a way out. I had this image all the time—this was like for 5 years after I got out—of being in a well and trying to climb out and getting knocked back down. Getting almost near the top and then… any little thing that would happened I would let it be such a big thing to knock me back down instead of rolling with it. It took a long time to do that. I was lucky because David’s caregiver, we all lived together for the first year, so he didn’t have to get separated from her and go through that kind of trauma again. I had her help and support still for taking care of him. I had somebody that gave me kind of a little makeshift job answering phones… he taught tennis lessons, and mostly I hung around the tennis court while he gave lessons and he gave me $7.00 an hour or something like that. David could come with me and the kids that took tennis lessons would all play with him.
It wasn’t like I went out and found that job. It was people that I knew… I was lucky enough to have people say “Here you’ll need money. Here do this. Here’s a place… ” Because I don’t know what I would’ve done without that, because I really felt like I didn’t know how to so anything anymore. I remember being really freaked out by the phone because that was one of the things at prison, there were phones ringing all the time, it seemed like it anyway. There would be officers on duty out in that middle part, and if they were on rounds or not being there, the phone would just ring and ring until somebody answered it. Sometimes it would just ring and ring and ring, but you could never touch a ringing phone. You weren’t allowed to answer them. It was this really weird thing when I had my own phone again, this big hesitation. I had to remind myself, “Okay, this is your phone, you need to answer this.” There were months that I was afraid of the phone or just not used to it.
I think the other thing is that… like when I got arrested, I used to keep a dream journal. And they, of course, took all my things when I got arrested. And they did end up giving it back to me. After I got out, I could go claim this stuff. Actually, I think it was before I got out, but after I made bail. But anyway, it was marked with an evidence number, my suitcase, everything that they took, had been marked with a case and evidence number. So just thinking that they had gone through this journal, somehow looking for clues, was just so invasive that for a long time it made me really hesitant to write. Even the stuff that I wrote while I was in prison, it was really hard to do that because I had this feeling of, “nothing is mine anymore,” they could take anything at anytime. Your property was not your property, you know, you didn’t have privacy, and that lasted a long time before I was comfortable expressing what I really thought—even on paper, without worrying. I sort of put on my own sensor, because I knew they could take and what might somebody think about this. That took a really long time to not feel like this.
S.C.: From what I know about your history and from what I hear from other people, there seem to be lot of cases where women are incarcerated and there’s a man in the picture… could you talk about that… using whatever perspective you like?
J.A.: Sure, well, I got arrested for carrying drugs… it was actually for my brother-in-law, he was married to my sister at the time, probably more than 15 years. He was involved in dealing. I was… I had been living in Hawaii, and I was going to school in Chicago. So I was going back for my Christmas break, back to Hawaii, I was going anyway. And when he asked, “Would you take this package,” I knew what it was; it wasn’t like he tricked me. I just didn’t really think about what could happen. I thought you could only get in trouble if you went over a border. I didn’t use cocaine and so, it seemed like I was doing a favor for him. I wasn’t really nervous about it, because I was too stupid to be nervous. I didn’t think about risk. I didn’t see there being any risk. So I did it, but I got arrested as soon as I got off the plane.
Actually, the day that I got arrested they were asking me a lot of questions about who gave it to me, who I was bringing it to. I didn’t… I kept saying, “I need to talk to a lawyer.” They kept trying to scare me, saying—you know, I had told them I was pregnant, because I wasn’t really showing yet—and they were saying, “Your kid’s going to be 20 before you get out. You can get out of this if you tell us who gave this to you.” So, I didn’t say anything that day, and really they never asked me again, which was a mistake on their part. When it came up at my sentencing and the prosecutor told the judge I refused to cooperate, my lawyer told him, “We kept waiting, but nobody came to us.” It was lucky for me that they messed up because at the time I don’t think I would’ve told. I had this warped sense of loyalty. I was so grateful that he had gotten me a lawyer, and I was really thinking, “Oh, this is so great of him to do this and take care of this.” But not really thinking, “He should be getting me a lawyer, he should be here and not me.”
At that time I probably wouldn’t have told, so I’m glad they never asked because I think it would’ve made me have a longer sentence. As it was—and this was another place I was really lucky because my case was federal, had I been sentenced six months later, I would’ve been sentenced under the minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines and I would’ve had a 10 year—the minimum mandatory sentence—where in my case the judge was able to look at—they sent somebody to talk with my parents, they looked at my school records, I gave them… I had letters from people who I had been cleaning their houses to help with school, and I had somebody I cleaned for send a letter to help with my sentencing. So, they were able to look at that stuff and see my involvement was low. And give me a lighter sentence where with the minimum mandatories, none of that stuff matters, it’s just would have been the 10 year minimum mandatory, unless I gave up names. I lucked out in that way. When I think of it now, that I was being so loyal him, it just annoys me.
S.C.: I would think that maybe facing a mandatory minimum sentence…
J.A.: ... I might have thought differently? Although, when I think of how I was at the time… I don’t know that I would’ve still. I don’t know… it’s hard to know. I might have thought differently. Now, I really wish I had.
S.C.: Do you think there’s any connection between the abuse you experience as a child and your…
J.A.: Yes, I do. And it was like I said, I didn’t… the stuff with my brother… I had stuffed so much and I didn’t really fully deal… it started coming out when I was locked up. And then I went to counseling after I was in prison and really did some intensive work. There were some days that after I went to the therapist in the morning, I had to go home and go to bed for the rest of the day because it was so intense. It really made me look a lot at… I had gone through most of my life not thinking about the consequences and not realizing that I could say “no” to people if I didn’t want to do things, that I had a right to do what I wanted. I had… all my relationships had been, not really abusive, but I didn’t have very many long relationships. I had sex with a lot of people that I didn’t want to. I can remember instances where it would be really a lot like with my brother: I would not say anything, not do anything, I would just be there, but not getting that I could say, “No, I don’t want to do that.” I think that was just sort of the way I lived: if other people want - okay let’s do this, let’s do this. I didn’t really get that it’s okay to say, “I don’t really want to do that, let’s do something else.” I never really thought much about what I do, I want to do.
I would make little starts at it. I think, actually, I was in school when I got arrested, and I was older I had been out of school for a long time. That was probably the most… I was feeling like I’m really on my own, I’m really getting myself together, I’m going back to school. I knew what I want to do. I was going to be a music therapist, but then I got waylaid along the way. It was, like, really much in retrospect that I started seeing that it was partly because of my brother, partly because the way I was raised, really strongly Catholic, in that you do it because these are the rules and not really learning how to think about, how do you make a good decision? How do you evaluate different things, different choices in deciding something and choose which one? I had learned you do things because you’re told what to do: this is what the church says to do.
When I got to the point in my twenties where I rejected the church, I didn’t have anything. I just did whatever everybody else was doing. It was something I didn’t really learn until later and that it’s something I don’t know now—I feel like it’s a lack in my parenting that I’m not teaching that with David because it’s something that I’m still learning. It was always because somebody else said it. When I rejected that whole set, I didn’t know how do you figure things out, how do you know what you are going to do. I would just go along with… I would feel like a leaf getting blown along… and you might stop here because it hits a tree and stays there for a while. And the wind might blow it somewhere else, and you might go somewhere else. I didn’t really have a direction, and I didn’t really know how… I mean, I still watch people’s lives and look at how they do things. And I’m think, “that’s really interesting, you just decide this… ” You know, I never… I didn’t get those skills growing up. It’s all because you’re told “because I said so, because the church said so.” It made me not have much direction.
S.C.: Can you talk about your incarceration in terms of its impact on your relationship with your son?
J.A.: Having that time in prison where I missed most of… well, he was seven months when I went in and I was gone for a little over 10 months total. In a way it’s a short time, but it’s… I wasn’t there when he made his first steps. But, Joan said, he did some steps and that day when they came to visit she told me and he wouldn’t do it again. Actually on the phone she told me and visiting wasn’t for another couple days… so, that was her take… he waited, because then he didn’t do it again until he came to visit, so that was kind of cool. “Because she said he did it, and we talked that day and she was so excited. But then he didn’t do that again until he came to visit. So he sort of saved that for me. His first birthday was on a day that wasn’t a visiting day, so I didn’t get to see him that day. Really, I think the things I missed the most were the little day-to-day things—his birthday—he doesn’t know that much about that’s it’s his birthday, that was probably more important to me. He wasn’t feeling like, “oh, it’s my birthday, my mom’s not here.” But, overall, he was feeling like my mom’s not here and I think it carried over. He had a low frustration tolerance, he would get really, really upset sometimes about something way out of proportion for what the thing was. I think it was some of the feelings he had that he didn’t know how to deal with. I made a tape for him when I got locked up because I used to sing him lullabies.
And I made a tape of the songs and Joan used to play it for him while I was gone. And really shortly after I got back, I was singing to him and he said, “don’t sing.” I really didn’t think much of it at the time because at the time he was just starting to think that he was a big boy and not wanting baby stuff, so I thought it was related to that. Then when he was seven, when I started working with women in prison, and so I felt like, “okay, I’ve always thought I need to tell him. This is the time I need to tell him” because I started being more public about my background and I thought he needed to hear it from me. When I told him, actually he was so cute. I kept thinking, I need to tell him, but how do I bring it up? Then one day he asked me, “how come we don’t still live in Hawaii?” so I thought okay that’s a good way to talk about it. He had asked me that before and I always said, “oh, it’s to be near grandma and grandpa”—they’re in Chicago. But, really I just felt like I need to be far away from where all that stuff happened.
So, I told him, “When you were a baby, I did something really bad. I got in trouble and I had to go to jail and you and I didn’t live together.” He put his arm around my waist—we were sitting on this swing thing—and he said, “Well, Mom, sometimes you learn from your mistakes.” It was so cute. That night we had a good talk. He said, “It is sort of like a big time out?” He wanted to know what it was like and where it was. Only once before he had mentioned it. When he was about 3, he said, “remember when you were in cage and me and Joanie used to come visit you?” I just said yeah and that was all. We never talked about it and he didn’t seem to remember after that. But, that night when we had the talk, he said, “Sing those songs you sang when I was a baby,” and he made me sing those songs every night for months and months.
I felt like that was his… Now I saw why he didn’t want to hear them—for him those were about me being gone. So, when I was back he didn’t want to hear them anymore. Now that he had the words and we had actually talked about it, somehow, hearing them was helping him process some of those feelings that he had been having at the time. One of the things I learned studying music therapy is how music is in a different part of your brain than speech. He talked really late, I mean even by two, he was not doing very many full sentences. So he didn’t have the words, but he knew those songs and those tunes, and to him they were about me not being there and somehow hearing them over and over with me being there and him now having the words, helped him deal with those emotions, somewhat. It was still so up and down. It seemed like it would be better.
S.C.: Anything else?
J.A: Being locked up changed me in every way. Emotionally, I changed a lot because it started unlocking some really deep things I had never dealt with before. I began looking at that and it changed me drastically as far as my worldview and how I looked at politics. Before I was in prison, I didn’t know anybody who had been to prison. I really looked at the whole government how they teach you in “civics” that you are innocent until proven guilty and that there are laws that the criminals don’t follow, but that good guys do. I got a whole different take on that because I was guilty, but the police that arrested me were…used some really illegal tactics that then they got on the stand and lied about and just how they treated me in the beginning. It wasn’t innocent until proven guilty, they…you were immediately treated like you were guilty by the arresting officers, the people at the jail. It wasn’t your innocent until we prove this; it was you’re guilty right away. And I felt like I was… sort of…I went to demonstrations during the Vietnam war and stuff, I though I was pretty politically aware, but I guess I didn’t realize how much of the party line I bought because I was so shocked when the police lied on the stand.
That really surprised me. Being there and meeting the women who were there and seeing how very, very, very few of them needed to be in a place like that and how many other kinds of needs they had that weren’t being taken care of—so many emotional and mental health needs that…and substance abuse, just all kind of things that weren’t being taken care of - it was so clear: This isn’t what’s going to make things better for any of these people. It really changed how I looked at government, how I looked really at everything in life. I think in a lot of ways I became more cynical, but also really was much more interested in learning about those types of things.
Like learning more and more, reading more and more. Before that, I guess I sort of thought that certain people are more political and that that’s good, but that they take care of it for all of us and I can listen to some of them and that’s as deeply as I need to get into it. After prison, I just realized that you have to know about all this stuff. It’s one of the things that I really encourage everybody to do. I think that’s the most important thing. Now, through my work, I do a lot of public education about prison and the prison systems. I give some information, but I always say “you have to keep studying this and not just take the mainstream word for what’s happening, not just the big media picture because it’s so not true.” You need to know the truth about what’s happening. That was my biggest change: seeing that everybody needs to pay attention to politics, not just certain people and that they are going to take care of it for us.
S.C.: What about emotionally?
J.A.: Emotionally, I changed a lot, too. I think it was that time… okay… I made use of it. As much as I missed everything outside and hated that restriction of being locked up… it was a time when you didn’t have to think about paying rent, or fixing meals, or paying bills. My bills were still piling up outside, but I used the time to do a lot of self-reflection and I realized how close the actual time I served was to a term of a pregnancy and kind of decided that I was going to be reborn out of this. The part that caught me a little off guard on that was… and it took me years after I was out to think about it this way, okay when you are reborn you’re not reborn as an adult who’s already fully functioning. So, I think I was reborn in a lot of ways, but then still had to go through a lot more after that to finish. I was reborn, but I was in some ways still really youthful emotionally and still needed a lot more to learn. But when I was in there, I was thinking I was going to be reborn and everything was going to be so much better when I was out. But, it wasn’t until I got out and saw how many problems there still were and how many things I still had to deal with that hit me. Reborn but still had to go through a lot of growing before you’re a fully functioning, healthy adult.
S.C.: In what ways are you still paying for that 10 months?
J.A.: Well, after I got out of prison, I had a lot of debts, because I’d had school loans, that were deferred, but now I had to start paying. One school loan that I somehow missed when writing for the deferments had gone into default and was almost tripled by the time they got to me because it had gone to 30-some percent in default. So, I had a lot of debts. Finally, it was almost 10 years later that I declared bankruptcy because I was getting in deeper and deeper. I had a job, but I was… by the time I made all my payments… I didn’t have enough to live on, so I’d have to charge groceries and gas. I had to declare bankruptcy, so financially I was still paying for it. Financially, even though I did the bankruptcy, I still am paying because I have a horrible credit rating, I have nothing. So, it’s definitely impacted me financially that’s still going on after all these years.
Then, also, other ways, the length of time it took to fix the relationship with my son and for him to feel good about himself. The years of counseling that we went through to get it together—and I was lucky to find that and lucky to find people who did it at sliding scales, but even with that, it was this huge investment of time and energy and money that really would have been so… it really wasn’t necessary. Emotionally, I still have as part of my self-identity that I’m a convicted felon and that’s never going to go away and that stops me from… I can never be a teacher, I could go back to school now and not get the tax credits, those higher education tax credits… you can’t get them if you have a drug conviction. It doesn’t matter what amount of time has gone past. The financial aid forms you fill out to get aid for school ask if you’ve had drug conviction and there are a lot things that are always going to be denied because of this mistake I made. You’re paying and paying and paying in some ways for the rest of your life.